She knew she had to start making violins. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says.
The majority of violins are made by hand, an art dating back to the 1560s in northern Italy. Throughout centuries, the craftsman’s pride has remained constant, but the method of learning the craft has changed. Gone are the days of student apprentices trained under an old-timer’s watchful eye. There’s neither the time nor the resources for that kind of individual attention anymore.
Now, would-be violin makers venture to three established American schools: Boston’s North Bennet Street School, The Chicago School of Violin Making and Utah’s own Violin Making School of America, which Steele attends.
In 1972, Peter Paul Prier opened VMSA—America’s first violin-making school—on the second floor of his violin shop, still located at 308 E. 200 South. Though he had no formal experience heading an educational institution, he had passion and will. There were four students then. As interest and class size increased, the school soon moved to its current location next door, which has seen periodic additions and renovations.
In 2006, Charles Woolf—a VMSA graduate who had become head instructor—purchased the school so Prier could focus strictly on violin making. The school’s current enrollment is 28, with students who have come from places ranging from New England to China, as well as Utah. There’s a one-year waiting list.
Some things haven’t changed after nearly 40 years. The air, smelling of shaved wood and linseed oil, is filled with sounds of classical music. Silent students meticulously hone their craft. And there’s a wry humor about the place. The students joke about making a comic strip about school life featuring the conversations that occur while students queue up for Woolf’s advice. “He’s always making some really funny, dry quips under his breath. And he’s always eating a brownie,” Steele says with a laugh.
“I try to keep the atmosphere positive, because it’s plenty stressful, this work,” says Woolf, who began teaching at VMSA in 1991. “I love teaching, and I like the people in this profession. They’re very creative and from all different backgrounds.”
VMSA is a three-year program. In the first year, students work on two violins simultaneously. Through repetition, they begin learning shape, form and their tools. These first violins generally take nine months to complete.
Extracurricular activities include yearly trips to the Uinta Mountains looking for dead Engelmann spruce trees—not to harvest, but to learn how wood is used in making violins. The school’s violin wood—50-year-old spruce and 20-year-old maple—comes from the German Alps and Minnesota, respectively. The school also brings in outside musicians to show-and-tell their instruments; recently Utah Symphony guest soloist Augustin Hadelich brought his Stradivarius. Students take violin classes taught by Rosalie MacMillan and an art class taught by Sanghoon Lee, who’s also the instructor of varnish and setup, which students learn during Years 2 and 3.
Once a sense of process and efficiencies are learned, students are challenged with making a 3/4-size violin. They also begin and complete work on a cello. Graduation work consists of three months working mainly alone on two violins.
Graduates often stick around Salt Lake City. With a couple dozen violin makers at professional or home studios, Woolf predicts there are more here than most other metropolitan areas.
Most students need five additional years of hands-on experience at a shop to increase skill sets in repair, set-up and varnish. Then, hopefully, Woolf says, they’ll be up to the standard of selling to top professionals around the world.
That’s exciting for Steele. “I love the thought of producing something that people can derive enjoyment from,” she says. “Creating music alone is pretty great, but knowing I’m making something other people will use—well, that’s better.”
It’s not all creative, gratifying work, though. Take scraping away miniscule imperfections under one bright light in a solitary dark room for example. “Everyone has a different part [of the process] they hate. There’s a cumulative loathing of scraping. You come out, and it’s like you haven’t seen the light of day in forever,” says Steele with a laugh.
In the end, the changes in a student’s abilities are extreme. “There is a fine-art aspect to this, but it is doable. Somebody can be trained to produce a beautiful violin,” Woolf says.
“It’s a craft that has been going on for centuries and currently American-making is very strong. I think we’ve contributed to that.”
VIOLIN MAKING SCHOOL OF AMERICA
304 E. 200 South